|Parish Councils (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001
Mr. Moss: The Minister is reeling off a host of comments that sound like the imposition of the thought policereports, committees, this, that. Is he suggesting that the codes of conduct need to be applied at parish council level, where hardly any money is involved and no decisions are taken that have any bearing on what goes on in the district or county?
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Dr. Whitehead: What I find puzzling, and what I am trying to explain to the Committee, is that if the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is correct that the new code should not be applied to parish councils, presumably he would argue that the previous code, which was introduced by a Conservative Government, should be disapplied. That code, which applied to the parish councillor, said, among other things:
Mr. Moss: Those of us who have served on local councilsI have served on three tiers of local govtall accepted a code of conduct and the need to declare an interest where that was demonstrable. That is not a problem. We accept it and are happy with the code of conduct. Where the Government have made an error of judgment is in imposing this particular statutory instrument on parish councils. The point of the argument is not that codes of conduct are not necessary, but that this code draconian and unnecessary at this level.
Dr. Whitehead: Again, we come to the heart of the problem. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to appreciate that the code has not arrived from a clear blue sky and descended on parish councils that have hitherto lived in a garden of Eden of complete non-regulation and no codes of conduct. The introduction to the 1990 code, from which I have just read an impenetrable section and which seems to be against all that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire believes should apply to parish councils, says:
The new model code of conduct does not come from nowhere; unlike the previous code, it was the subject of extensive consultation. Copies of the draft code were sent to all parish councils and their representative bodies, and they were given 12 weeks in which to comment. It is worth recalling that the majority of parishes that responded, and both major representative bodiesthe National Association of
Column Number: 13Local Councils and the Association of Larger Local Councilssupported the provisions that are now in the code.
Mr. Moss: Would the Minister tell the Committee how many of the 8,000 parish councils responded to that consultation?
Dr. Whitehead: As I said, there was a 12 week response time, and a number of people responded. Some of them did so through their representative bodies. I suggest that the number of responses was substantially greater than the two letters that the hon. Gentleman read out a moment ago.
There are three main parts to the code. Part 1covers general provisions; part 2 covers personal interests; and part 3 covers registration. The general provisions in part 1 are largely the same as those in the existing national code. They impose requirements on parish councils that most people would regard as unremarkable. They provide that councils should not seek personal gain from the decisions that they take on behalf of the public; should treat other people with respect and within the limits of the law; and should be open about the reasons for their decisions.
The requirement for council members to declare conflicts of interest is in part 2 of the new code, and replaces existing requirements in the old national code, which Lord Nolan found impenetrable. I read out a section of the old code, and I am not surprised that he found it impenetrable. We have changed the nature of the test to make it easier for members to declare interestswe are not requiring them suddenly to declare interests now that they did not have to declare previously. The code also helps them to decide whether or not they need to declare an interest, and if they declare an interest, whether they should withdraw from a debate.
However, the underlying principle is the same as ever: when the matter under discussion touches on the personal interests of a member, he or she should declare that fact and, in certain situations, take no part in the discussion. It is not good enough simply to say that certain parish councils fall below the radar level of the requirement to declare an interest when public money is being considered. As I understand it, members of all parish councils have hitherto accepted that requirement without much comment. It is surprising that a massive outburst of outrage should suddenly occur simply because the existing code is being clarified. Two thirds of the code is substantially the same as the old code, but simplified and clarified.
That leads me to the major area of concernthe third part of the new code, which requires members of parish councils to register particular interests. That is the main distinction between the old and the new arrangements. Parish members will now be required to place in a public register certain facts about their financial and personal situation. It is important to understand why we have registration requirements. There can be little argument that those in public service should serve the public interest rather than their own personal interests. The registration of
Column Number: 14financial interests has applied to principal councils since the regulations on members' interests were introduced in 1992.
When it reported in 1997, Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life recognised that the
It is true that some parish councils have very few duties to provide services to their communities, but they have wide discretionary powers at their disposal. It is up to individual parishes how and to what degree they choose to exercise those powers. Some parishes use their powers extensively to deliver a wide range of local services, which vary from running village halls and community centres to providing community buses, supporting the elderly and providing facilities for the young. Parishes may also provide information points that offer advice on jobs, housing and access to other agencies' information services. They may grant aid to a variety of local bodies. Parishes have the ability to raise a precept on their electors, and some have budgets of up to £1 million a year. Parish councils canand some doexercise wide functions and control sizeable budgets.
The Government are encouraging parishes to become more active through the quality parish councils initiative. We want to see quality parish councils working closely with their principal authorities and giving their communities a better deal on local services and a stronger voice in the decisions that affect people's lives. There is no suggestion that the quality parish councils initiative will be imposed on parish councils; they may apply to take part in the initiative--that is another canard shot.
Mr. Moss: The Minister was talking earlier about the differences between this code of conduct and that which pertained previously. He referred to the register of members' interests. He did not mention paragraph 6, which says:
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